Like 14 million other Americans this past week, I plunked down my precious sixty bucks and walked out of Gamespot with a freshly wrapped copy of Grand Theft Auto 4. For the non-video gamers out there, GTA4, as it’s commonly refered to , is the latest installment from Rock Star Games, and it offers a city in which you can do anything that you want. Particularly if that something would be ill-advised or fraught with lengthy prison sentences. Or other unpleasant results.
And when I say ‘a city’, I mean an entire city–full of people, cars, buildings, restaurants, businesses, helicopters, Mafia dons, prostitutes (somewhere, I haven’t found them yet), all fully interactable in real time. Unlike most video games which offer vignettes in evenly spaced intervals, or small enclosed areas in which you can operate for a limited time, GTA4 provides an entire metropolis in real time. You have to drive the streets (this version has a GPS included to help you get around), talk to people, buy greasy hotdogs from sidewalk vendors to stay alive, dodge creditors–just like real life.
With a difference.
Real life frowns upon you shooting said creditor in the head to avoid paying your hefty debts. In GTA4 you can. See a nice new sports car pulling up beside you as you munch on that hotdog? Pull out the driver, beat his ass, and take it. If you see a nicely appointed hooker trolling the streets of Harlem, pick her up and have your way with her (it was much easier in GTA2). Want to steal a snazzy UH-60 helicopter from the federal government and then fly it down Broadway at streetlight level? Go right ahead! Just be sure that you can either outfly the LCPD choppers–either that, or have a useful cheat code stored in your character’s nifty new cellphone.
Yes, the police are in the game, and yes, they will chase you down and lock you up if you get caught breaking the law. However, it is possible to outrun them, and even if they do catch you, they will only throw you in jail overnight, and fine you a chunk of your hard earned pay. Unlike with the NYPD, who will simply shoot you 51 times and then sneer at your family in court for three months. Well, the police in the game will shoot you, but somehow bullets are cured with a brief stay in one of Liberty City’s sparkling new hospitals. It’s amazing what technology has brought to gaming–who would have thought you could find competent medical coverage in NYC?
Now, I can hear the grayhairs out there saying, why would you want to run around breaking the law at will? Because it’s fun! Particularly when it is realistically portrayed, and it’s only in a video game. I’ve told myself that exact same disclaimer after doing any number of deplorable acts in the game. I suppose it all holds a certain amount of appeal to rebellious 15 year old teenagers–or to 40 year old soldiers with too many tattoos and an overdose of testosterone.
GTA4 is set in the fictitious metropolis of Liberty City–which bears a striking resemblance to New York City, along with Brooklyn and Albany. The last two GTA games have similiar tie-ins: GTA-Vice City took on Miami Florida, and GTA-San Andreas blended together Los Angeles and San Francisco. And as for ‘striking resemblance’, I mean amazingly accurate. In Liberty City, not only are there the usual tourist spots–the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, but even obscure portions of the boroughs. There have been times, motoring around the digital town, where I swear I recognize the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, or Bay Ridge (the part of Brooklyn I live in).
And this is where it gets a bit more interesting, or surrealistic. Having just arrived in NYC, and still well into the exploratory side of things, it’s very strange to be investigating the nether regions of Liberty City on the Xbox on rainy days, and then riding through the exact same places in real life the next. The two realities keep overlapping, and the effect is something like a binary version of deja vu.
Last week, in the game, I rode a stolen chopper across GTA4’s version of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the very next day, rode my Springer Softail across the real one. In the game, no tourists took my picture as I roared by, as they did in real life, but to be fair, unlike my alter ego, I wasn’t packing a fully automatic MP5 submachine gun.
It was in the shop.
To add to the mental confusion, Manhattan is dotted with simply massive ads, painted on billboards, and most strikingly, the sides of buildings.
So I here I am rumbling along 7th Ave, images of GTA4 fresh in my head from the night before, astutely trying NOT to run over clueless pedestrians (like in the game) and then I come across something like this and I have to question reality all over again. It’s hard work, when you’re trying to balance a massive hog in rush hour traffic, and simultaneously avoiding Gotham’s infamous potholes.
Now, if GTA can include the smell of the city and the feel of fetid air on your face, we’ll have some pretty realistic VR going on.
I give it ten years.
Thanks to Kuniochi 女 at www.flickr.com/photos/10564709@N08/2422923623 for the images!